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Improving the reliability of water sources in Kenya and other countries

In Kenya, only around half of people living in rural areas have safe drinking-water sources and even then, these sources can easily fall out of use, leading to a greater risk of illness, particularly among children, from contaminated water. However, new technology could be the answer to ensuring that water sources are reliably maintained.

Researchers at Oxford University have been working on a device which fits inside the hand pump of a well. Data can be transmitted from the unit which monitors the activity of the hand pump and sends a text message if the pump breaks down. Known as the Waterpoint Data Transmitter, the device also has the potential to record information which could prove vital for water-resource planning, such as the volume of water being used by communities.

The ‘smart’ hand pumps will shortly be rolled out across 70 villages in Kenya, a country where mobile network coverage is particularly high (four-fifths of Kenyan adults have a mobile phone.) Currently, it is common for around a third of hand pumps not to be functioning, even though communities in remote areas often rely on the pumps for clean and safe water. And repairs can often take up to a month.

With the new device, not only will mechanics be alerted very quickly to any breakdowns, which may only require the replacement of small parts such as rubber rings and seals, data might also be able to predict a pump’s failure before it happens.

A member of the Oxford research team explained to the BBC World Service that the device works by measuring the movement of a pump’s handle and then using that to estimate the water flow. By measuring small changes in the way pumps are handled, the team hopes data can be used to flag up when a pump is likely to fail. But they will only find this out when the devices are tested out in the field.

The Kenya trial is being funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) with plans to set up a second trial in Zambia later this year. Referring to the project, Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, spoke about the importance of keeping safe drinking water available, not only to “save lives”, but also because access to clean water is “a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty”. Sponsoring programmes like this one, DfID hopes to provide an extra 15 million people in developing countries with clean water by 2015.

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